By Peter Konieczny
…when the Christians saw they had prevailed as victors, and few of their number had fallen, they dismounted and cut off the heads of those killed, tied them to their saddles and carried them back in great happiness to their many comrades who were awaiting the outcome in the camp around Antioch, along with a thousand fit horses and many spoils they took from the defeated enemy. The king of Egypt’s envoys were in that same battle and they also took back the army on their saddles the cut-off heads of Turks.
This account of battle outside of Antioch, from the History of the Journey of Jerusalem by Albert of Aachen, illustrates a little-known detail of the First Crusade – that while the crusaders were fighting against one group of Muslims, they were also fighting side-by-side with other Muslims. In this article, we present the case that an alliance existed between the Crusaders and the Fatimid rulers of Egypt, and it was only when that alliance broke down that Jerusalem would become the target of a military attack.
The First Crusade is one of the most pivotal events of the Middle Ages – when tens of thousands of men and women committed to going to Jerusalem, which at the time was being ruled by the Saljuq Turks. But by the time they reached the Holy City in the summer of 1099 it was under the rule of another group – the Fatimids of Egypt. Most historians tend to gloss over this fact, as if the Crusaders really did not care who was ruling the city. However, a closer look at the sources suggests that if history had turned out a little differently, Jerusalem may have been spared a bloody massacre.
Who were the Fatimids?
The Fatimids were a Ismaili Shia movement that emerged in the Middle East in the ninth-century. Faced with persecution their leadership re-established themselves in North Africa, and gradually began to carve out a state for themselves. It would lead to the conquest of Egypt in 969, where they created the city of Cairo and a state that included Muslims, Christians and Jews.
In his article, “Byzantine-Fatimid Relations before the Battle of Manzikert,” Abbas Hamdani explains that while the two states were in conflict during the tenth-century, by the year 998 a series of formal truces were agreed upon. While there was some tense times, mostly caused by the erratic behaviour of Caliph al-Hakim (996-1021), this relationship improved over time, as new agreements were made. Most notably, two Byzantines and the Fatimids agreed on boundaries, in which Antioch was to remain under the control of Byzantium, while Egypt would rule over Jerusalem and Damascus. By the latter decades of the eleventh-century, these states had only known peace with each other in living memory, which is remarkable for the medieval world.
The Fatimids and the Byzantines had good reason to be allied with each other – they both were threatened by the Saljuq Turks, who by the mid-11th century were establishing an empire that stretched from Central Asia to the Mediterranean. They brought war against the Byzantines and Fatimids, the latter with intensified vigour because of the Saljuqs, who adopted Sunni Islam, saw the Egyptian rulers as heretics. It would be the Saljuqs who would conquer Jerusalem from the Fatimids in 1071 – and it was also they who started preventing Christian pilgrims from going to the Holy City.
By the eve of the First Crusade, Egypt and Byzantium were still loosely allied, and both were looking to push back the Saljuq advance. The Fatimid rulers would have no reason to expect hostility when Emperor Alexius I sent word to them that armed Christian pilgrims were arriving from Western Europe. In fact, one of Arabic source, the Chronicle of Ibn al-Athir, indicated that the Fatimids might have even wanted and invited the crusades to come to the Middle East:
It has been said that the Alid rulers of Egypt became fearful when they saw the strength and power of the Saljuq state, that it had gained control of Syrian lands as far as Gaza, leaving no buffer state between the Saljuqs and Egypt to protect them, and that Aqsis [a Turkoman chief] had entered Egypt and blockaded it [in 1077]. They therefore sent to the Franks to invite them to invade Syria, to conquer it and separate them and the other Muslims, but God knows best.
As the various princes and leaders of the crusader army reached Constantinople in 1096 and 1097, the Byzantine emperor encouraged them seek out an alliance with Egypt. It seems logical to believe that Emperor Alexius informed the crusaders of his relations with the Fatimids and expected that the crusade leaders, most of whom had sworn oaths of loyalty to him, would respect his treaties with Egypt, just as they were supposed to hand over the territories they conquered back to Byzantium.
It is hard to know what the crusaders would thought of the Fatimids. Their knowledge of the situation and religious affinities of the Middle East would have been iffy at best – they had launched this pilgrimage because of the attacks on Jerusalem by Turks/Persians. However the Crusaders understood that the Egyptians were a different people – ruled by in their minds pagans (who shared some beliefs with the Turks but were also different) but also including many Christians (although not Roman Catholics like themselves). Much of what the crusaders knew about Egypt would come from the Bible – this is where Moses rescued the Jewish people from, but also the land where the infant Jesus found refuge – so they could have seen them in a kind of ambiguity.
Several accounts about the First Crusade note that around February 1098, when the crusaders were besieging the city of Antioch, a delegation arrived by sea from Egypt. The most detailed account comes from Albert of Aachen, who writes:
…the king amir of Egypt, because there had been very severe discord and hatred between him and the Turks long before this expedition of the Christians, and knowing the Christians’ intentions by means of a certain abbot sent as emissary, sent fifteen envoys who were skilled in different languages to the army of the living God, about a mutual alliance for peace and his kingdom, bearing this message: ‘The marvellous king of Egypt, who rejoiced at your arrival and that you have done well so far, sends greetings to the great and small princes of the Christians. The Turks are a race foreign to me and dangerous to my kingdom; they have frequently invaded our lands and held on to Jerusalem, a city which is subject to us. But now with our forces we have recovered this city before your arrival, we have thrown out the Turks, we have struck a treaty and a friendship with you, we shall restore the holy city and the Tower of David and Mount Sion to the Christian people, and we shall have discussions about acknowledging the Christian faith. If, when we have discussed it, it pleases us, then we are prepared to embrace it. If, however, we should persist in the law and the ritual of the gentile faith, yet the treaty which we have between us shall not be broken. We entreat and warn you not to withdraw from this city of Antioch until that which was unjustly stolen is restored to the emperor of the Greeks and to the Christians.’
This account has inaccuracies – most notably the fact that at this point Jerusalem was still in the hands of the Saljuq Turks. Other accounts offer different details. In a letter the crusade leader Stephen of Blois states the that Egyptians had “established peace and concord with us.” William of Tyre reports that these envoys also included members of the Egyptian ruler’s household staff, who encouraged the Crusaders to continue their siege of Antioch. He adds that “the deputies were commissioned to assure the Christians that the sultan would aid them with military support and resources. They were also to try to win the hearts and favor of the leaders and to close a treaty of friendship with them.”
It was during this visit that crusaders engaged in battle with Ridwan of Aleppo, dated to February 9th, mentioned at the beginning of this article. While other accounts acknowledge that the Egyptian delegation was present for this victory, Albert of Aachen is the only source that states they fought side-by-side against the Turks.
The delegation apparently stayed several weeks with the crusaders before returning to Egypt, bringing back envoys from the crusaders. It seems likely that they were also returning with some kind of agreement – if the crusaders could capture and hold onto Antioch, the Egyptians would retake Jerusalem and that some kind of provision would be made to help the Christian forces and assist them in finishing their pilgrimage. The deal could have also included promises that the Egyptians would have made sure that Christians – and more accurately, Roman Catholics – would be handed over key churches and shrines within the city.
One must keep in mind that at this point, there is little evidence to suggest that the crusaders were intending to stay in the Middle East and create their own state. A great deal of evidence suggests that nearly all of them intended to return back to Europe. Antioch was supposed to be handed over to the Byzantines and while some crusaders would have desired to liberate Jerusalem from any non-Christian rule, during the years 1097 and 1098 most would have been happy with just getting to the Holy City.
The notion that the Crusaders and Fatimids had made some sort of alliance also helps to settle a question that has puzzled historians of the First Crusade: why did the crusaders, after defeating the Turks at Antioch in June of 1098, decide to wait until the beginning of 1099 to resume their march towards Jerusalem? Other factors have been suggested, such as turmoil among their leadership and questions of what was to be done with Antioch, but so could have been the idea that the crusaders were waiting for the Egyptians to complete their part of the deal.
In August of 1098 an Egyptian army marched to the gates of Jerusalem, and began a siege of the city. It did not take long for the local Saljuq garrison to surrender. Soon after the Egyptian forces also departed.
William of Tyre reports what happened next:
About this time, our envoys who had been sent down into Egypt returned to the leaders. They had gone thither at the request of the Egyptian legates who came to the siege of Antioch by the orders of the caliph of Egypt, as related before. For a year these envoys had been forcibly detained in that country, both by violence and strategy. With them came envoys from the prince of the Egyptians bearing messages whose general import was far different from that of the former embassy.
At the time they had tried earnestly to gain the goodwill and assistance our leaders against the overweening arrogance of the Turks and Persians. Now, however, their attitude was entirely changed. They seemed to imply that they were conferring a great favor on the Christians by allowing unarmed pilgrims to go to Jerusalem in groups of two or three hundred and return in safety after completing their prayers.
The leaders of the Christian forces regarded this message as an insult. They forced the envoys to return with the answer that the army would not consent to go thither in small detachments, according to the conditions proposed. On the contrary, it would march on Jerusalem as one united host and threaten the kingdom of their master.
The Egyptians must have believed their proposal was logical. The city of Jerusalem had just been reconquered and in any case would not have had the resources to take house, feed and take care of tens of thousands of pilgrims coming at once. However, for the crusaders this proposal would have meant that many would have to wait months or even years before they could all finish their pilgrimage. It was clearly unacceptable for them, after all the blood they had spilled, to be denied their right to go to Jerusalem. With preachers such as Peter Bartholomew whipping up religious vigour and the alliance between them and Byzantium dissolving (they reckoned that Emperor Alexius had not given them enough support) it seemed for the crusaders that they no longer had to follow any plan that suggested Jerusalem would stay under Muslim control, or that Antioch would be returned to the Byzantines. The crusaders were now working for themselves, and any alliances they had made before were null and void.
In early 1099 the crusaders began what was essentially a dash towards Jerusalem, hoping to catch the Fatimids unprepared. In fact, the city of Jerusalem was currently being demilitarized with its defences torn down, which offers more indication that the Egyptian rulers were under the impression that they had a fairly strong alliance with the crusaders. By the time they could react Jerusalem would already be under attack, falling on July 15, 1099.
It should be noted that crusaders placed all the blame on the breakdown of this alliance with the Egyptians. One chronicler suggests that Fatimids were secretly negotiating with the Turks, a doubtful prospect considering the enmity they held towards each other. William of Tyre explains that once the Saljuqs had been defeated, the Egyptian’s attitude towards the crusaders changed: “Hence it was that they scorned the aid of our people which formerly they had so earnestly sought.” Most accounts written from the crusaders point-of-view, offer little or no words about relations with Egypt prior to the conquest of Jerusalem, as if their previous diplomatic exchanges were something to be best forgotten.
The attack and capture of Jerusalem proved to be a shock to Egypt and the wider Islamic world, and crystallized a view among Muslim writers that the crusaders, and Western Europeans (Franks as they would call them) were untrustworthy and duplicitous.
Few historians have spent much time talking about the possibility of a Crusader-Fatimid alliance – one exception being John France – but it is important to consider this possibility for several reasons. First, it suggests that the ideas that crusades was directed against Islam itself is somewhat misplaced – the initial threat happened to be the Saljuqs, who happened to be Muslim, and that they were prepared to work with other Muslims in order to defeat them. While the crusades would later evolve into a war between religions, it did not necessarily start out as one.
Another aspect about the First Crusade worth emphasizing is how chaotic and unpredictable it was. While many of its leaders, including the Pope and the Byzantine Emperor, had their own ideas and agendas for how it was supposed to play out, the events of 1095 to 1099 would lead to unusual and unexpected developments. Nothing like the First Crusade had ever happened before in history – tens of thousands of people journey thousands of miles, led by their own faith, in what was both a military campaign and a pilgrimage. It is why this episode is one of the most intriguing stories of the Middle Ages.